By Mark Peters, NYCOFI Board Chair
Safety is a serious concern, as car wash worker José Garcia’s* story illustrates, with many employees struggling with dangerous working conditions that are not addressed by their employers. José Bernabe, an employee at Fine Fare Supermarket in East Flatbush, was responsible for cleaning recycling machines, which involved transferring crushed glass from the machine to larger containers. Mr. Bernabe breathed glass dust every day for many years, without ever being provided with protective equipment. “I have problems with my vision now,” he said, “and every time I (blow) my nose, blood” comes out.
Mr. Bernabe needs a Low Wage Worker Day of Action.
The face of an employee of a local car wash was showered by chemicals when the “bubble” holding them burst open. Three days later layers of skin peeled off. Other car was workers talked of bleeding noises and deterioration of their eyesight from working with harsh chemicals. None of the workers were trained in safe-handling procedures, and none were provided with masks, gloves, or other safety equipment.
These car wash and grocery store workers are not alone. In the course of this and other organizing campaigns, we’ve found many other industries in and around the City that similarly exploit workers who do not yet have the tools to fight back – exposing them to the same 80-plus hour work weeks, toxic chemicals, and unsafe equipment, all for wages far below legal levels.
In response, New York Communities for Change has been working with RWDSU, MRNY, and other allies to reach out to low wage, primarily immigrant, workers at grocery stores, car washes, and fast food restaurants. Successes are happening. The workers at Fine Fare won a lawsuit for back wages. Mr. Bernabe won a long-term contract with regular increases, guaranteed hours, and paid sick and vacation time. Bringing the workers together to collectively address the issues at individual stores, and engaging them in a campaign to win back wages, improve working conditions, and obtain union contracts has had proven success.
These stories makes three important points that seem to have been lost of late: First, organizing labor is just as important now as it ever was. Second, the results of this organizing will make the City more competitive, not less. Third, it is essential that low wage workers fight together to expose the treatment they receive every day while simply doing their job.
Organizing workers simply doesn’t make us less competitive. Much of New York’s economy is a service economy. There are thousands of grocery store and car wash employees in New York City. You can’t ship their jobs off to China. And busy New Yorkers, with jobs, children, and transportation challenges are not about to start hauling their own groceries just to save the few dollars a week extra it costs to pay a fair price for the service.
In other words, the City’s supermarkets need to have their stores in New York, and they need their employees in New York as well. Our cars are in New York, so the car washes can’t be moved overseas. This part of the labor market isn’t international. But thanks to the organizing efforts of NYCC and others, it can be safe and fairly paid.
There is more work to be done. We all need a Low Wage Worker Day of Action.
*Not his real name.